Federal Issues Update: Energy Bill, Drought Relief, Budget News
February 5, 2016
As the nation’s capital continued to dig out from a historic blizzard, both chambers of Congress returned to action this week. In the lower chamber, Republicans attempted to override the president’s veto of legislation (HR 3762) that would have repealed key provisions of the Affordable Care Act and stripped federal funding from Planned Parenthood. As expected, the final vote of 241 to 186 was well short of the required two-thirds majority. However, despite the setback, Republicans are still expected to target the law in 2016.
Energy Bill Stalled
Across Capitol Hill, the Senate resumed their debate of a broad
energy bill (S 2012) that would, among other things, raise energy
efficiency standards for commercial and federal buildings. The
measure, which once enjoyed bipartisan support, stalled as
lawmakers squabbled over the extent of an emergency aid package
for Flint, Michigan. For their part, Democrats threatened to
filibuster unless the chamber considered an amendment to provide
assistance to help the beleaguered city deal with its
lead-tainted water supply. Republicans, while sympathetic to the
blight of the Flint residents, have countered that the cost to
the federal government is too high. Some also believe it
effectively constitutes an earmark.
In other developments, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) on January
21 released a drought-relief discussion draft. The measure,
entitled the California Long-Term Provisions for Water Supply and
Short-Term Provisions for Emergency Drought Relief Act, is an
updated version of legislation (S 1894) that the senator
introduced in the first session of the 114th Congress.
S 1894, along with a competing House-passed measure (HR 2898), was used as the basis for last year’s bicameral drought negotiations, which ultimately broke down late in the session. The new draft is likely to serve as the centerpiece for discussions aimed at producing a consensus drought-relief bill.
On the operational side, Senator Feinstein’s draft places an emphasis on real-time monitoring and updated science to inform decision-making on pumping rates. According to the senator, the discussion draft provides “maximum assurances” that the bill would not violate any environmental law, including the Endangered Species Act or the biological opinions for salmon or smelt.
In addition to provisions governing the operations of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project, the legislation would authorize significant funding for a variety of programs, including water storage, desalination, and recycling programs. Specifically, the measure would authorize $100 million for research, design, and construction of desalination projects. Among other things, the bill also would increase funding for WaterSMART grants (from $350 million to $500 million) and would authorize additional funding for Title XVI recycling programs and various water storage projects.
Senator Feinstein is currently accepting comments on the new draft bill and has indicated her intent to introduce the measure sometime in the near future.
On the transportation front, House Transportation &
Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) and
Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) introduced
legislation (HR 4441) on February 3 to reauthorize the Federal
Aviation Administration (FAA) for six years. With the current
extension of FAA authority slated to expire at the end of March,
there is a strong impetus to act on a new long-term funding bill.
However, the measure – entitled the Aviation Innovation, Reform,
and Reauthorization (AIRR) Act – includes a controversial
proposal to establish an independent, non-profit corporation that
would be in charge of modernizing and providing U.S. air traffic
The T&I Committee is slated to hold a legislative hearing on February 10 to further discuss the bill. The committee also has tentatively scheduled a full committee markup on February 11. However, disagreements over the future of air traffic control operations could significantly delay negotiations.
Obama Budget Likely DOA
Looking ahead, the Obama administration will formally submit its
fiscal year 2017 budget request to Congress on February 9. With
Republicans squarely in control of both chambers of Congress, the
expectation is that the president’s spending proposal will
essentially be dead on arrival. However, release of the tax and
spending blueprint will represent the first official step in the
budget and appropriations process for the fiscal year that begins
on October 1. In addition, the budget will serve as a benchmark
for congressional Democrats as they push their party’s federal
For their part, House and Senate GOP leaders are optimistic that they will be able to work through the regular appropriations process instead of relying on stopgap funding measures and massive omnibus packages. Notably, the last time all twelve appropriations bills were completed prior to the start of the new fiscal year was in 1994. Fueling much of the optimism is the two-year budget agreement passed by Congress last fall, which raised discretionary spending caps through fiscal 2017.